CAIRO, Neb. — The distance from Cairo, Neb., to West Papua, a province of Indonesia, is about 8,300 miles.
The two places connected last fall through the intervention of Lady Luck, Dame Fortune and a New Zealand adventurer who searches for and restores old World War II airplanes.
The story began when Chris Evans, who lives in Auckland, New Zealand, was visiting West Papua in 2000, looking for airplane wrecks.
"I became friends with a few natives in West Papua," Evans said. The area was called the Dutch East Indies during World War II. "I was gifted some U.S. and Japanese dog tags. On one there was a Melvin C. Pearson, and it gave his next of kin as Marcia E. Pearson, Cairo, Neb."
Evans did not give the dog tag a second thought until last year.
"I have two girls, and I started thinking about people and families," he said. "I thought I shouldn't be hanging on to these things. This item belongs to the family.
"So I started an Internet search. Since Cairo was a small community, I thought we've got a shot here of finding someone who knows something."
Evans sent an email to Lisa Harders at Cairo's Christ Lutheran Church. Part of it read:
"I'm contacting you as in a small community as yours there may be a chance that a Pearson relative may still be living in your town. I know that this information is from 1942, but with some luck maybe we can get this tag to someone related. Cheers, Chris Evans (New Zealand)."
That tidbit of information prompted several people — Evans, Cairo's Jo Riedy and Ken Harders, and Mel Pearson Jr. of Hilton Head, S.C. — to begin unraveling the story of Melvin and Marcia Pearson.
The discovery of the dog tag got Mel Pearson Jr. in the history mode too.
"Mom (Marcia) worked at the Cornhusker Ordnance Plant in Grand Island and the Naval Ammunition Depot in Hastings," Pearson said. "She attended the Grand Island Normal School, and in 1942 she taught school at Martell."
Melvin Carl Pearson Sr., who was born Nov. 18, 1910, in Omaha, was an airplane and engine mechanic at the Lincoln Aeronautical Institute in November 1942.
Pearson is guessing that his dad and mom met sometime in 1942.
"They were married in January 1943 and I was born in December of '43," Pearson said. "Dad was drafted in late '42 or early '43. His date of departure overseas was Nov. 1, 1943."
The elder Pearson was an intelligence NCO (non-commissioned officer) with the Army Air Force's 310th Fighter Squadron. "He handled historical clerk reports, maps, pilot briefings, etc.," Pearson said.
Evans was in Manokwari, a part of West Papua, in 2000 when he came upon the dog tag.
"I can't pinpoint where this tag came from but remember being told that it came from Noemfoor (also spelled "Numfor" or "Numfoor") Island," he said. "This could be wrong as I can't personally confirm how or where they were found. Fighting in this area (Noemfoor) was in July and August 1944."
Records show that U.S. and Australian aircraft began bombing Noemfoor and other islands of the Dutch East Indies as early as April 1944.
That could be the time period when Mel Pearson Sr. lost his dog tag. But he never lost his life in the war.
"On Sept. 24, 1945, he was back in the States," said Mel Pearson Jr., 68, who is a war veteran himself, having served in Vietnam.
After the war, Melvin and Marcia bought a house and moved to Gardena, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles. That's where they lived for four decades.
Mel Pearson died on March 7, 1983, and was buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery. Marcia moved to Winchester, Va., to be closer to family.
Marcia passed away at age 88 on March 23, 1996, and is buried next to her husband in Inglewood Park Cemetery.
The Pearson family history unfolded after Evans made contact with people in Cairo.
After more detective work, Riedy and Harders discovered that Mel Pearson the World War II soldier had a son with the same name. They notified Evans, who in turn called the younger Pearson when he was in Arkansas last October.
"What a great job Jo and her team back in Nebraska did in tracking him down," Evans said. "Amazing folks. I can only imagine all of the research and time they have poured into this."
Today the nearly 70-year-old dog tag is back in the Pearson family.
"This is something you only can vaguely imagine," Mel Pearson Jr. told Evans last October.
"I'm glad he survived the war," Evans said. "One of my fears was that I had the tag but no remains or a location if he was MIA.
"It's quite neat how it all worked out."